Why the Abyss Didn’t Need Its Aliens

Some of the best science fiction stories that deal with space travel and mankind leaving Earth do just fine without any pesky alien lifeforms. Aliens as a plot device have always been interesting to me as their inclusion allows for the exploration of certain themes that can be explored more freely than with a cast of ordinary humans. That being said, the richness of human characters and the notion that mankind itself would change (often drastically) once it starts traveling to other stars and living on other worlds make for excellent science fiction story telling when no aliens are around.

Two examples of universes without aliens are Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which project mankind onto other worlds without any aliens in sight. Neither of these bodies of work are lessened by a lack of extraterrestrials.

But have there been books or movies where the aliens are present but not needed?

While my own first novel has a liberal dose of the little buggers, sometimes less is more, and there are quite a few science fiction books and films that do just fine with nothing resembling a life form from another planet. One film comes to mind where I feel the final product might have been improved by taking the aliens out completely.

That movie is The Abyss (1989 Dir:Cameron).

abyss water face

I’ve seen the Abyss many times in both the 1989 original release and the 1993 171 minute Special Edition. I love both versions and prefer the Special Edition. I wish I had seen the SE first, though. The original cut had no alien-controlled killer wave that threatened to destroy humanity. This deleted plot point put back into the SE explained the aliens’ motivations and fleshed out why they were so interested in Bud’s exchange with his ex-wife Lindsey while he lay dying after defusing the bomb. In the original cut the aliens merely become an embroidered sideshow that allow the deux ex machina ending of the giant cow patty saving the rig and those on board. They also provide an outlet for some great special effects.

But the aliens weren’t really necessary.

abyss alien
The Abyss Concept Art By Jean “Moebius” Giraud

The original script (which makes for a good read) had all of the elements for the special edition, but a three hour movie was an unpopular business risk for the producers and director alike. If the script had gone through a rewrite removing the extraterrestrials entirely, the film would have been a leaner story that focused on the situation of investigating a downed submarine with nuclear warheads and a SEAL team sent in for the recovery whose commanding officer becomes afflicted with pressure sickness. The conflict with the crew of an underwater dilling rig within the clausrophobic undersea setting is tense and gripping. The story has great characters, and the small moments included in the special edition further flesh these characters out.

Isn’t this enough story for one feature?

The parts where the aliens move the plot forward could easily have been changed. Enough real submarines have had emergencies that didn’t involve an underwater close encounter. The tension between Lt. Coffey, Bud, and Lindsey could have been along practical and ideological grounds instead of the aliens coming around the rig and stirring everybody up. Coffey’s attempt at using a nuke could been directed towards another target. A second oil rig run by the Russians, perhaps? The core elements of the drama would have remained intact.

Isn’t Coffey enough drama for you?

Fortunately the Special Edition did get made. It was longer, louder, and looked great on the big screen. If the final cut had arrived first few of my observations would be relevant as we would have received the movie the script demanded. But sometimes, less can be more, even if that would have made the original film a thriller and not a science fiction movie.

Can you think of other examples of books or movies that might have benefited from fewer aliens?

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